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No narrative scenario conditions us to anticipate favourable outcomes more than superhero stories. No matter how bad things get for our heroes, there’s always an expectancy that the good guys will find a way to get the job done and live to laugh about how close they came to defeat later.
Through the first three episodes of What If… –— a series that by its very nature is under no such ‘heroes must win’ mandate — hope has remained even when outright victory has proven elusive. But the latest episode audaciously flips the script, ending with an outcome that could only exist in this form.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. What If… Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands? focuses on our titular wizard (a returning Benedict Cumberbatch), a character who has become quite the lynchpin in the MCU despite only debuting in 2016.
In this reality, his colleague Christine Palmer (a returning Rachel McAdams) takes the good doctor up on his offer to accompany him to a neurological society dinner. They’re also much more romantically engaged than their MCU Prime counterparts. Before they get a chance to fully express those feelings however, Strange has his fateful car crash. Only instead of his hands, the casualty is Christine’s life.
That’s what propels him to seek out the mystic arts. For a while, this reality is the same as the one we’ve come to know, with Strange defeating Dormammu via some high stakes bargaining and becoming the Sorcerer Supreme.
But on the two-year anniversary of Christine’s death, this Strange uses the Time Stone to travel back to that momentous night and try to avert catastrophe. Just one problem: the event is an “absolute point” in time, and cannot be altered. The montage that follows is both relatable and heartbreaking, as Strange tries to change Christine’s destiny again, and again, and again, and again, and again to no avail, his growing sadness and frustration effectively accentuated by Laura Karpman’s string heavy score. That’s when Strange decides to take more drastic measures, traveling back in time to peruse The Lost Library of Cagliostro and gain the knowledge and the power required to bring Christine back, reality-ending consequences be damned.
Cumberbatch is a stronger voice actor than most of the MCU actors lending their vocals to What If…, which is no surprise given his prior work on Smaug and Dormammu. But even he can’t quite sell Strange’s villainous shift from asking creatures for power to forcefully taking it, especially when he’s only given one line to do so.
Ironically, the criticism here (and really for each episode of the series so far) is that they could have really done with more time to flesh a couple things out. Still, the visuals in this sequence are appropriately nightmarish, as Strange goes off the deep end and absorbs the energies of increasingly gross-looking creatures.
Thankfully, right before the doctor travelled to the most exclusive library in existence, the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, reprising the role yet again) split him in two, creating a new timeline where Strange resisted the urge to go back to the past. It’s this decision that leads to the episode’s high point, as a now “misguided” Strange — desperate to become whole again so that he can enact his plan to resurrect Christine — duels his twin. The mystical combat that follows can’t help but evoke Doctor Strange vs. Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War, with attacks followed by counters followed by more attacks. It’s all visually stunning, inventive, and fun to watch.
It’s a fight that I thought the good version of Strange would surely win, but his evil side emerges victorious instead, and promptly brings Christine back to life. It’s only for a moment though, as the Ancient One’s warnings come to pass, and his reality fades into nothingness. And I thought last week’s episode was dark…
Arrogance, along with a desperate need to fix things — whether it breaks the rules or not — have always been part of Stephen Strange’s character. It’s what made him a great surgeon. It’s what makes him a great sorcerer. It’s also what makes him dangerous, and this storyline does a great job of emphasising just how fine the line is between his heroism and disaster (the recent Spider-Man: No Way Home trailer gave us a taste of this too).
Watch the trailer for Spider-Man: No Way Home
Also, confession time: I loved Infinity War, but its much vaunted ending didn’t fully work for me. The MCU has long conditioned its audience to always keep an eye on the future, and that strategy has worked well for them in the past. But for me, it came back to bite them when I didn’t have the desired emotional reaction to characters like T’Challa and Spider-Man turning into dust because I knew they’d be back, and I knew it in the moment I was supposed to be despairing over losing them.
I had no such qualms with the ending of What If…’s fourth chapter, because it’s absolute. There are no takebacks. There is no world-saving plan that will take five years to come to fruition. No click of the fingers will make everything right again.
We’ve only spent 30 minutes in this reality as opposed to the decade of MCU storytelling we had before Infinity War, but the realisation of all this hit me hard in this episode’s final seconds. It’s the type of bold, this-could-only-happen-in-What-If swing that makes this the best chapter of the series so far.
This is the first time Doctor Strange has been called the Sorcerer Supreme. Not quite confirmation of his status in MCU Prime, but I’ll take it.
The car crash has some of the same shots as the crash in MCU Prime. Nice attention to detail.
Jeffrey Wright’s Uatu looms larger in this episode than he has in the previous chapters, but even when an entire universe is at stake he refuses to intervene. It’s inevitable that he will cross that line before the season is done. I’m intrigued to see what ultimately motivates him to do so.
When it comes to actors the MCU has not made the best use of, Rachel McAdams is at the top of the list. She doesn’t have a lot to do in Doctor Strange, and even though it works for this story I’m not crazy about her being little more than the object of Strange’s affection. Whether it’s in Multiverse of Madness or a different What If… story, this needs to be corrected. Until then, you should all watch/rewatch Game Night.